Massacres & Disasters
Isaiah 55: 1 – 9; Luke 13: 1 – 9
What we value shapes our life and death.
A murderous massacre and a natural disaster feature in our readings this week. The massacre is all about politics. The second is about a faulty building. In each many meaningless deaths take place.
I read these readings before dawn last Monday, which is my usual custom. But my own context was so strange by comparison. I had spent Friday to Sunday enjoying the sport I fell in love with at the age of 14. The Grand Prix is a bit of a circus and for the motoring enthusiast there is plenty to see including classic racing and sports cars that brought back memories of my first car race and grand prix. For your information I wonder how many of you realise that today F1 racing cars are hybrids combining electric and petrol engines with the ability to harvest extra electricity from the energy generated when breaking. Anyway the point I want to make is this: there I was enjoying the luxury of the GP circus and at that time 50 people had been massacred in Christ Church, NZ. Then on Monday night we sat and watched Q&A, which was all about the natural disaster of the recent Queensland flood in which 650,000 head of cattle died. The stories of devastation in the natural disaster and the massacre were over whelming. How can one be enjoying some indulgence when such things have happened?
When such sad occasions occur it is not surprising to hear the question, ‘What is God doing?’ Of course we don’t hear that question so much in our society today because we are such atheists or agnostics and our secularism excludes such questioning. Hearing the words of Luke’s account of the Gospel we can sense that question was alive. It must have been posed. Jesus’ response to the questions about the deaths of those Galilean zealots suggests some were using that wonky theological framework that bad things happen to bad people. Jesus makes it quite clear that the tragic deaths of those massacred and those killed by a falling building had nothing to do with how sinful they were. God does not punish us in this way.
Jesus is saying something far more serious. When we read this text in its political context we see that Jesus is warning his hearers about their response to their political reality. The Galileans were known for their fierce military resistance to the Roman Empire. So Jesus’ warns his hearers that unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did [Lk 13:3]. Jesus is saying that unless they turn away from violence they too will die violently. ‘Repent’ means turn around and face another way. Likewise the comment about the tower of Siloam falling and crushing people is a reference to Jerusalem’s inability to hear the Gospel of Jesus. And Jesus is saying to Jerusalemites that their hardness of heart towards the Gospel will mean that they will be crushed by the destruction of this city. In fact some 37 years or so later that is exactly what happened. Jerusalem took up arms against the Empire and the city and temple were raised to the ground. The message is that violence is not God’s way. Take up violence and you will die by it. The message is also that what we treasure will shape our life and death.
This teaching is relevant for us today. It contains a deep truth. It goes like this. If your focus is away from God and on other things then you will live and die by those things. For example, if our focus is on material things it is by those things you will live and die. The material will take up all your energy and time. The material will become the measure of your worth or un-worth. In other words life and death are defined and judged by the material. Great acquisitions will be a blessing to you. Shopping will be your therapy. The sadness of material acquisitions is that they never satisfy and so you must strive for more. Our increased acquisitions also come at the expense of others. However when your acquisitions fall away so does the meaning of your life. The end of your life will be measured by what you have or have not. Furthermore when you die you leave your acquisitions behind and you are nothing. You are nothing because your life has been about acquiring things and they, as Jesus has said, will rust and perish. They have no eternal value and meaning. They have little relevance to others.
This truth applies to everything other than God. If I was talking to people who are not believers in God I would be saying that this truth means your spiritual life is shallow and of little meaning. I would argue that a shallow spiritual life does not prepare us for the hard times that life brings. It is not surprising that those who shun God turn to therapies like mindfulness and meditation for strength to deal with life’s offerings. Whether we live solely for our children or for education or independence this truth applies. These things fall away and we are left with the ‘me’ that is largely empty. The true irony of life is that when we give ourselves to God we see this world differently. We find a lasting meaning. We gain a new purpose in life that rescues us from the self. We discover a new appreciation of life. And our happiness turns to a deeper sense of well-being – what the Bible refers to as joy.
It is a good thing to audit our lives if for no other reason than that we may come to the sunset years of our lives full of regrets. We may enter our sunset years realising that we have put too much energy here and there and that these things took us away from what is really important and valuable. Sadly one encounters people who have put so much into their professional life that their family may have suffered, or at least they perceive that to be the case. They end their professional life with regrets. God in Christ Jesus helps us discern what is truly valuable. In repenting – turning around and facing God – we come to see and experience a reality that is truly blessed. To find our centre of gravity in the Creator God connects us to the fundamental source of all gravity – love. I speak here of the spiritual centre of all life, which ultimately is love. That is what the Bible says that God is love [1 Jn 4:8]. When we are drawn to that centre our life finds stability, purpose and meaning.
Jesus was warning the people then and his words warn us today. If we neglect this spiritual centre, which is God, and withdraw from the gravitational pull of God’s love we will die alone with nothing. If you think I am talking nonsense then think of the people who have achieved great success yet feel worthless and alone. This is most evident in lives of some very successful artists, singers, sportspeople and the like.
Now you may be saying that it is too late for me. It is never too late for us. Jesus’ final illustration about the barren fig tree, the owner and the gardener reminds us of the ever forgiving nature of God. The fig tree is given another chance to bear fruit. But it remains true that if the tree does not bear fruit it is worthless and another tree must take its place. The test of where we centre our lives lies in the type of fruit we bear. What are we producing? What is our contribution to life? We need to be careful how we answer these questions. The person lacking self-confidence may to easily damn themselves and the confident person may too easily affirm their life. It is best that we invite an independent and reflective person to help us examine ourselves.
Let us return to this story Jesus tells about the owner, the tree and the gardener. The essence of its truth is that God is always ready to receive someone who repents: someone who turns to God. We have Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son. It tells us that there is always the ‘heavenly parent’, waiting to receive us home. The parable of the Prodigal Son is really the parable of the ‘Waiting Father’. Isaiah leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of God when he says:
Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
[Isaiah 55: 6-9]
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 24/03/2019